OXNARD, California – It may come as a surprise to find a sophisticated kosher restaurant in Oxnard, a community known for the California Strawberry Festival and its proximity to the neighboring Channel Islands National Park, 11 miles offshore.
But life is full of surprises, and this coastal city between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara is where I found Tierra Sur Restaurant, housed in the modern headquarters of Herzog Wine Cellars, itself located in a business park.
Herzog represents eight generations of winemaking going back to Baron Herzog, who made wine in Slovakia for Emperor Franz Joseph before the Holocaust.
Because the emperor liked Herzog’s wines so much, he bestowed upon him the esteemed title of “Baron.”
My wife and I arrived for lunch at Tierra Sur, where Chef Todd Aarons prepares memorable lunches and dinners in an open kitchen. But before our meal, we toured the winery, which gets its grapes from California’s central and northern wine regions, sourcing grapes from private vineyards.
The winery markets two lines: the Baron Herzog value line, and the Special Reserve wines, including European and Israeli products, and also features kosher wine clubs.
Herzog’s modern tasting area offers two reasonably priced options: the Baron Herzog tasting, which includes Central Coast Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Blanc and Black Muscat; and the Special Reserve tasting, which includes California Chardonnay, Cabernet/Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon/Zinfandel/ Syrah.
Tierra Sur Restaurant, right off the winery’s tasting area and gift shop, can seat up to 40 people at tables covered with white tablecloths; when the weather warms up, you can choose to sit in the adjacent patio.
Aarons, a 1993 graduate of the California Culinary Academy, worked early on at the Zuni Café in San Francisco and Savoy in New York City’s SoHo.
But it was most likely his year-long experience as an apprentice in various restaurants in Italy, including Restaurante Da Delfina in Tuscany, that instilled in him a fascination with Tuscan culture and cuisine.
Aarons’s style could best be described as a mix of Tuscan and Mediterranean, with the creative addition of Mexican flavors from California’s cultural mosaic.
But whatever label you choose, Aarons’s cooking makes use of fresh ingredients from local farms – obviously one of his Italian influences, because for the Italians, as he noted, the connection between land and food is very strong.
In fact, Aarons makes it a practice to regularly visit local farms; he tells a visitor, with obvious pride, that “our best friends are all the farmers in the area.”
So now comes the big question: How did he start cooking kosher? In the late 1990s, Aarons became more religiously observant, and at the same time, he traveled to Israel, where he worked and put together the menu for a local branch of a northern Italian restaurant chain.
Following his return to the United States, he opened Mosaica, a successful, upscale Glatt kosher French- Mediterranean restaurant/bistro in New Jersey.
In terms of cooking kosher, Aarons likes to say that while the food he prepares “just happens to be kosher, it doesn’t change the style of the food.”
Of course, the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating – and what a tasteful proof it was! Soon after we sat down, our waiter brought us a generous serving of French bread with a dish of olive oil for dipping. We had to pace ourselves, though, so we could leave room for the platillos of tapas that followed.
There were salt cod beignets, presented in a heavenly light cream puff dough, followed by miniature chili rellenos served in “toy box” chilies, which Aarons had filled with a delightful mix of whipped, nicely balanced potatoes, eggs and fish roe. Finally, there was a serving of Greek black olives, along with large green olives and red ones, reflecting different brining.
My main course was a farfel pasta-and-duck ragout in a light tomato sauce, which displayed hints of rosemary and garlic. Bread crumbs fried in olive oil added a pleasant crunchy texture to the dish.
My wife chose the savory herb-marinated chicken breast sandwich with garlic aioli, homemade hickory- and-maple smoked lamb bacon, and sweet potato fries. It was all so substantial that we had to have part of it boxed to take along with us.
The wine list offered many Herzog choices to go with the meal, rounding out a very pleasant visit… with plans to return. IF YOU GO…
Herzog Wine Cellars and Tierra Sur Restaurant are located at 3201 Camino Del Sol in Oxnard, California.
Reservations: (805) 983-1560.
Restaurant hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. for lunch Sunday-Thursday and dinner from 5 p.m.-8 p.m. Friday (lunch only) from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
For more information, visit: www. herzogwinecellars.com.
Information about Oxnard is available at www.visitoxnard.com